So, people are really upset about the Oscars this year.
Like, really upset.
Why? Two reasons: either they are upset about the lack of racial and gender diversity in both the Academy and its nominees… or they’re upset that some people are choosing to speak up about yet another manifestation of a severe, systemic problem that continues to plague the U.S.
In case you’re wondering, I’m in the former group. I’m upset that non-white actors, actresses, directors, and other members of the film production industry are continuously overlooked when the time comes to choose the best cinematic artworks of the year. Before you make the asinine argument that the BET awards “have never nominated a white actor”, let me give you things to think about. (Note: For simplicity and time’s sake, this blog post will focus on actors of color who have been nominated for Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Director, and Best Documentary.)
First, let’s get this out of the way: the BET Awards are simply not on par with the Academy Awards. The Academy is a prestigious, elite group of supposed cinema experts, whose knowledge and experience make them suitable for choosing particular films of artistic merit. The BET Awards receive nowhere near the same amount of exposure, nor are they as coveted by folks in the film world as the Academy Awards. While winning a BET Award is certainly something to be celebrated, it isn’t on the same scale as the Academy Awards. So, save yourself the enraged, incoherent rationalization of racism: they’re simply not on par with each other in terms of media exposure and social significance. Also, need I remind you that when groups of people feel like they’re not represented in mainstream media, they will create their own niche in media where they can see themselves represented? (Just like when you weren’t allowed to join the popular kids’ secret club in elementary school. What did you do? You went and made your own fucking awesome club.) And let’s not forget that non-black actors of color (Hispanic and Latin American and Asian actors, for example) are almost completely left out of the picture. Why? That’s for another blog post. But I digress.
If we’re going to talk about representation at the Academy Awards, we need to go back in time a bit. Looking at the Oscars since its inception (in 1929), we see a depressingly whitewashed backdrop on which American cinema has been painted. The first black actor (Sidney Poitier) wasn’t nominated until 1958, and the first female (Dorothy Dandridge) wasn’t nominated until 1954. Even more depressing is the fact that it took eighteen years for another black woman (Diana Ross) to be nominated in 1972. All in all, throughout the entire history of the Academy Awards, there have been only 71 nominations for black actors, actresses, and directors since 1927. While one might argue that this number is proportional to the number of black people in the U.S. population, it’s still depressing to think about when you envision the number of black actors, actresses, directors, costumers, etc. who probably should have been nominated for Oscars and simply were passed over. It also shouldn’t be overlooked that there have been entire years where no black individuals were even nominated.
Even if you argue with the data, it’s imperative that acknowledge the voices of the people who are speaking up about this problem. We live in a system that attempts to effectively silence the voices of people of color, possibly for fear that they’ll dismantle the system that’s effectively stacked against them. Actors like Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, and Spike Lee are refusing to back down – and by listening to them and trying to understand where they are coming from, we can affect social change.
Let’s turn the page and look at non-black people of color who are underrepresented in Hollywood: Latin American, Hispanic, and Asian actors/directors/other. Dismally, there have only been 32 nominations of Latin American actors, actresses, and directors throughout the entire history of the Oscars, and 29 nominations of actors, actresses, and directors of Asian descent. When you think about the fact that nearly 3,000 Oscars (probably about 900-ish once you shave off the categories we didn’t talk about here) have been awarded since the first ceremony in 1929, that’s an incredibly stark look at how Hollywood and society in general have passed over the contributions of people of color.
According to The Economist, the most glaring problem is not so much the underrepresentation of black actors, but that of Latin American, Hispanic, and Asian actors in top roles. I would argue that underrepresentation of all actors of color is a deeply disturbing problem: when directors are hesitant to cast more than one person of color in main roles, or when they feel the need to “temper” the presence of non-white actors with white ones, there’s still evidence of a severe systemic issue. In fact, I now can’t watch a television show or movie without going, “Sigh. Same old group of straight white boys.”
Another cause for concern is the dearth of directors of color: black directors accounted for only 6% of directors in the top 600 films. And we know they’re out there.
I guess my point is that the people making executive decisions about who gets to make films, star in films, and win awards for films are still overwhelmingly white. And white people have a pretty lengthy history of deciding what’s “best” for non-white groups. Need I say more?
There is so much I could write about this issue that is simply beyond the scope of my own knowledge and understanding. I feel like I only touched the surface of the problem. If you care about this issue, and the many nuances of racial/gender/sexual orientation disparity in the U.S., please speak up about it. Don’t let yourself be silenced. Listen to black voices, Hispanic and Latin American voices, Asian voices, LGBTQ voices, female voices (and every possibly combination). It’s time for the white-supremacist patriarchy to stop silencing those voices, and it’s our job to smash that patriarchy.
If this post pissed you off, good. At least you’re thinking about it. As always, please comment and share. #OscarsSoWhite